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Mental Health & Employment Article

I wrote the following article for The House Magazine January 2009

The Government’s recent Welfare Reform White Paper calls for the creation of “trailblazing public authorities” to lead the way in employing socially excluded individuals.  Among the most excluded in our society are people with mental health problems.  Employment is a vital aspect when considering our mental well-being yet around 66% of people with mental health conditions are unemployed and dependent on state benefits, even though 90% want to work.  Employment, if undertaken in a benign environment and with suitable support, can be hugely beneficial for individuals with mental health problems.  Such problems currently cost over £77 billion a year in care costs, economic losses and premature death, a cost that could be significantly reduced by effective employment.

Work undertaken by the former Social Exclusion Unit tells us that over 60% of employers would be unlikely to employ someone with a mental health condition, so what example is Government itself giving to such employers?

Last year, I tabled two Parliamentary Questions to every Government department.  The first asked what measures the department was taking to actively promote the employment of people with mental illness and the second asked what information had been gathered on the effects of its policies and practices on the recruitment, development and retention of employees with mental illnesses.

What was striking from the answers received was how much variation there is between individual departments.  Some very positive schemes and measures were mentioned but, in terms of both the information available and the quality of the policies and practices described, there was a distinct lack of consistency across departments. This in itself would not necessarily represent an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  If all departments were performing to a generally agreed adequate standard and, above and beyond this, each department was experimenting with different policies and methods with information shared between departments to promote best practice, then this variation may well be a positive feature. Unfortunately, the answers received suggested very little co-ordination or sharing of practice between departments and the only specific minimum requirement placed upon each department seems to be the production of a Disability Equality Scheme, as referred to in almost every answer I received.  However, an analysis of the various Disability Equality Schemes for references to mental health found that the vast majority made little or no mention of specific measures taken to actively promote the recruitment of people with mental health problems; to retain and accommodate those employees with mental health problems; or to promote and assist mental wellbeing within the department.

The conclusion I draw from this is that mental health issues were not given serious consideration as part of the production of these schemes and that it was often considered adequate to simply include mental health within the general category of disability.  This is not good enough!  Mental health problems are far too complex to be addressed by such broad brushstrokes.

I had expected a set of public institutions, open to ready scrutiny and under the direct guidance of the Government’s reform agenda, to excel in this area.  What hope can there be that less prominent institutions in both public and private sectors will perform any better and what does it mean for the likely success of welfare reform?

I have now written to Jonathan Shaw, Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for disability, to suggest that serious consideration needs to be given to improving the performance and consistency of Government departments as well as the broader legislative and regulatory framework in this area.  Government departments are surely one of the best arenas for demonstrating how mental illness can be accommodated and mental wellbeing promoted within the workplace.  Disseminating good practice is important but this also needs to be set in the context of more stringent requirements of, and greater support for employers.  I commend a number of recommendations that the organisations Mind and Rethink have already put forward.  These include the creation of a highly flexible employment and benefits system for people with mental health issues; an end to pre-employment questionnaires asking about mental health problems; and a duty on employers to carry out mental health risk assessments of their workplaces, policies and practices.  The implementation of such recommendations would help to counter the threatening ‘headline message’ of successive welfare reform programmes that I know, from my own postbag, has caused much distress to many people with mental health problems who fear that they will be aggressively pushed back in to work that does not recognise the relapsing remitting nature of their disability.

The Government acknowledges that too often services for people with disabilities are structured in a way that can reinforce dependency and is clearly genuinely focussed on the need to address social exclusion and discrimination.  Indeed, there were many positive responses to my departmental inquiries.  But it is clear that we need to advance much further from one-off initiatives and pilot schemes, whether “trailblazing” or otherwise, to guarantee that those suffering from mental health problems are given a fair deal and compassionate support by society.

Click here for further information about my policy work on mental health and to read about my work as co-Chair on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health

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